Memories of Mother Robinson


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Category: Profiles Date: 20 Mar 97

The nominations, the contest, the debate the resistance the support was over. Finally it was settled Mr Arthur Napoleon Robinson was to be President of Trinidad and Tobago.


The excitement and the flurry was immense. TV6’s Francesca arrived at Information Division for final shots - she hadn’t slept all night - finishing off a feature; Information’s Deborah Maynard arrived exhausted from Tobago where she interviewed people on “Robbie” till midnight and beyond: “I spoke to Mr Wheeler and people on the street and and it was wonderful.” She trailed off excitedly and tiredly, “I’ll sleep and then I’ll be back to edit.” Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian  Mr Owen Baptiste wrote a column about the invitations. Who’s doing the inviting in the interim hours wondered Dominic Kalipersad.


There was a dress rehearsal - all the media were out in full force, and the TV stations jostled and marked the best spots to place their cameras. The protocol people and the organisers and caterers were working round the clock. The chandeliers and floors polished, the floral arrangements out, cameramen and women stocking up on film, cleaning lenses. The newspaper supplements were out, the constitution under examination. Mr Robinson’s record laid bare. The Guardian wondered in a headline: Is Sir Vidia Naipaul coming? Such a flurry. And why not?


President ANR Robinson, inaugurated formally on March 19, has  served Trinidad and Tobago for over 40 years - from member of the Federal Government to Prime Minister, as an MP and a barrister-at-law, as an academic and statesman. His achievements and honours have been reiterated many times in these past weeks.


Now it’s not for me to speak of the reservations and the precedents (not Presidents). Let the analysts do that. But one thing I can tell you arriving in Tobago as an 11-year-old  (even from as far as India) and living your teenaged years there is like eating Cascadura. You love the place to death and you belong there. And Mr Robinson, as they say, is a born Tobagonian. That loyalty becomes as part of your blood as the guava patch behind Bishops High School, trudging up to the Fort, sleeping and waking up to the thrash of the sea in Charloteville, driving home on Sunday evening, head stuck out into the sea breeze after a day in pigeon point, with matted salty hair flying in your face, stealing chennets, jumping fences to your friends’ garden, sliding down on the go-cart from the Fort, stirring the pot with stewed cherries by Mrs Wheeler, eating mango chow.


There were the quiet evenings in the backyard when this big orange haze would cover the sky, and go pale pink and then the palm trees would wave inky dark Evenings at Mt Irvine, and New Year’s dances at the Elias’s. Our cars were unlocked and we hadn’t heard of burglarproof. At least that was the Tobago I knew. (No Germans then at all) And in a sense, in Tobago we all have a shared reality. Our jobs and walks of life are different, our ages and races apart, but in its tranquillity, its relatively unspoiled beauty its smallness, we feel safe, we didn’t expect to encounter hostility. We were exempt from the rat race. Cozy. But that was Tobago then, 15 years ago. And “Granny” in Tobago was part of all that. We called her “Mother Robinson”. Everytime we went away to school we were taken to get her blessings and when we came back we went there first to be welcomed. She exclaimed over our growth and questioned us over our schools, and presided over tea. She lived in Victory cottage. On the incline of Main Road in Scarborough. A modest establishment divided in two. A modern section where “Ray” and his wife Pat would stay and another area of her own. We would sometimes sit in the sitting/dining room. In it I remember a portrait of Mr Robinson taken at the time of his graduation from Oxford, or on the verandah which had a garden adjoining a school.


So who is this woman who brought up the Prime Minister and now the President of this country? Her children and her family and grandchildren must know her intimately but here is a cameo of the lady. Perhaps it will give us an insight to the President of this country. But Mother Robinson adopted my mother and by extension us. No doubt there were many other adopted children in her life. There are those who knew “Mother Robinson” intimately but here’s how we on the outside saw her.


I always remember thinking how odd and how right they looked. My mother and Mother Robinson. This woman from Bangalore in a sari (in Tobago!) and this 80-year-old lady in old-fashioned cotton floral dresses. So I called my mother and asked her about Mother Robinson. From the time I was taken to meet her, I was drawn to the lady like a magnet. I felt I’d known her all my life. I didn’t feel any distance between us even though we came from different backgrounds. She was 40 years older than me. She didn’t have a flowery way of talking to people. She was sincere and you had to get to know her very well to see through that. She appeared formal but when you came to know her came to know her underlying kindness. She was a very private person. She had strong views but never forced her advice on you. She wasn’t wishy washy, going into superfluous endearing terms. You couldn’t help respecting her. “Granny” said a lot without saying very much. She discouraged people form overreacting to situations. She expected them to take problems in their stride. She conveyed her thoughts without thrusting her opinions on others.


I used to visit her and feel stronger and better able to cope with my own life. She was a person you could instinctively trust knowing she wouldn’t discuss your business with anyone. She never let a word of censure pass through her lips for any member of family or acquaintances. She taught people by example.


I clamoured for an old memory. How was the Prime Minister’s mother different to the “Granny” we knew? When “Ray” became Prime Minister, Mother Robinson just took it as a matter of course. She was completely free of pride and egoism and self aggrandisation. Her lifestyle didn’t change. She conveyed no conflict, no confusion, no resentment against people who had hurt her or son politically.


Mother Robinson spoke with affection of “Ray”. But never anything private or political. That was between her and her son and I never asked. She never spoke of politics but conveyed her beliefs which went beyond politics. She never spoke specifically of any one child over the other, but collectively of all her children. No one was singled out but she was satisfied they all did well in whatever they were doing.


But Mother Robinson was very Spartan in her attitude to her children - three boys and one girl. She told me she used to chastise her children when they were small so they would be well brought up. She didn’t believe in indulging them or encouraging them to be extravagant. All kinds of people came to see her  - none very glamorous or rich or elite but she was equally welcoming. She was modest in all her ways, her friends, home, style of living.


We called each other often. And we had a ritual I would ask, “Mother how are you feeling today?” And she would reply, “Good dear, but not up to the mark.” Isabella Robinson belonged to the Methodist Church across the road  and was actively involved - never missed a church session - she used to go and sit and talk to people. It was an indirect way of counselling them. She prayed with them, talked to them, did more listening than talking. She never tried to convert me. But when I was troubled she said “pray and I will pray for you.” We held hands and prayed. I was always suffused with peace around her. Suffused. We read the Bible together and she blessed me time and time again.


Mother Robinson had made a tremendous success of her life. She had a wonderful marriage with her husband who was a school-master in Castara, Tobago. She told me how she lived happily with her husband - of compromise, self control, always looking to the other person’s point of view and not wanting your way all the time. Her husband loved and respected her. When he died she brought up all the children by herself. Her children and grandchildren were always around her. She never complained, she never demanded, and she never told anybody her business.


We were worlds apart - but the qualities which attracted me to her are universal, discipline, decency, religious faith, as signs of right and wrong, a strong marriage, patience.


So that’s what my mother said of the late Mrs Isabella Robinson, mother of the President of this republic.


In many ways Mother Robinson epitomised the women of her generation - women who took pride in their religion, their families, had a strong sense of duty, knew what was right and wrong, and passed it on to their children - no compromises. Call those mothers Victorian and puritan if you will. This account  given by my mother finally explains to me the why that generation produced a different ilk of men such as the Ellis Clarkes, the Boscoe Holders, the Trevor McDonalds, the CLR Jameses.


Isabella Robinson not only gave birth to ANR Robinson, she gave him the tools that would make him a Prime Minister and a President. A final thought. Tony Deyal wrote of the now President ANR Robinson, “There is an almost Puritan streak in his sense of justice and calling.” And it has been said before but it needs to be said again. He was not only shot in the leg by one of the insurgents during the 1990 coup attempt but he was willing to give up his life for this country. The words he shouted out while a gun was being pointed at him were the words of a principled man with a strong sense of duty. “Attack with full force.”


And that was how Isabella Robinson, mother of His Excellency President ANR Robinson, brought up her son.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur